The first Stephen Sondheim musical I ever conducted is still a personal favourite—much of its marvellously voiced music and delectable lyrics are still as rich and fresh as when they were initially brought to life more than four decades ago.
Gary Griffin’s production is truly a night of smiles, even as some of the music slips into the background while its delivery, nonetheless, makes the composer-lyricist’s salient points with style, grace and wit.
Hands down the best performance musically and dramatically comes from Ben Carlson as Frederik Egerman. Like his character, Carlson most assuredly improves with age, offering a vocal range and colourings that make every note a delight to the ear. The formidable actor (cross-reference below) positively gets in and under the skin of the Swedish lawyer whose legal briefs have made him a fortune and reputation of the highest order even as the affairs while in his private briefs (or—hilariously—those of a co-suitor) appear to be one poor choice after another. Thank goodness for happy endings!
Of the other principals, Cynthia Dale is the next-most consistent, readily playing Countess Charlotte Malcolm for the easy laughs but also employing a finely nuanced subtext of a woman who understands the ways of the world and her place within it all too well—“Every Day a Little Death” indeed.
The semi-hysterical Henrik Egerman gets a convincing portrayal from Gabriel Antonacci whether artfully miming soaring cello lines, earnestly mining the dilemma of being a man-of-the-cloth-in-training while harbouring man-in-the-knickers thoughts (for his step-mother, no less!) or producing his few high notes with the greatest of ease.
Swashbuckling Juan Chioran is the epitome of chauvinist extraordinaire, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. His duet with Carlson (“It Would Have Been Wonderful”) is one of several poignant highlights.
In the pivotal role of Désiree Armfeldt, Yanna McIntosh brings her considerable acting skills into the triple-metre mix, digging deep into love found then lost and—perhaps—love found again. Wisely, she underplays her songs. The showstopper, “Send in the Clowns,” is rendered with a purposeful vocal understatement that works beautifully—never forced into becoming the full-blooded singer that she is not. Less is definitely more.
Alexis Gordon is young enough that, with expert coaching, she may soon find a way of harnessing an occasionally wobbly vibrato and scaling back her somewhat overly girlish portrait of Anne Egerman—11 months a child bride and still a virgin: Ye gods!
The “illegitimate” Fredrika is given an appropriately wide-eyed, naïve turn by Kimberly-Ann Troung.
As Madame Armfeldt, the matriarch of the play who is wonderfully blessed with selective memories of the legions of past lovers of the highest rank, Rosemary Dunmore more than makes up for her limited vocal prowess by exuding the aura of a sage woman—with all manner of experience—who knows much more than she will ever tell or fully recall.
The “chorus” quintet (Sean Arbuckle, Jennifer Ryder-Shaw, Barbara Fulton, Stephen Patterson, Ayrin Mackie) is a perpetual joy to behold and “behear.” More’s the pity that the full measure of their collective, close-harmony blend will never be truly appreciated so long as their contributions are electronically reinforced. “Soon, I promise, soon I’ll shut off the mics…”
In the pit, conductor Franklin Brasz generally keeps his charges under control (the brass a tad raucous from time to time), where crisper dotted rhythms and edgier syncopations could only improve the overall result.
Still, as the curtain fell, it was clear that Sondheim’s exceptional work had had a fine night—as witness far more than the three proverbial smiles lighting up the faces of the entirely satisfied patrons in the Avon Theatre. JWR